It happened one night in 1983. The usual selection of pre-main feature trailers; a guy digging a grave in a field illuminated by headlights; a private investigator blowing smoke rings while spinning a tale of marital infidelity…
Three minutes worth of clips promising murder, intrigue and betrayal. This was my first introduction to the world of the Coen Bros. One week later, I was back to view Blood Simple – their debut feature and, possibly, still their finest hour-and-36.
Here, classic film noir pitches camp in a Texas populated by self-serving characters who guarantee that, whoever comes out on top, good will not triumph! Bar owner Ray (Dan Hedaya) hires private eye Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to procure photographic evidence of his wife’s affair. Marty (John Getz), a barkeep at Ray’s saloon, becomes one of the targets in a planned double-murder (“I’ve got a job for you. It’s not strictly legal”), but things do not go according to plan as a series of twists and double crosses deliver a white-hot thriller. Abby (Frances McDormand) takes over from her husband and her illicit lover during a terrific final quarter, full of suspense, bloodletting and a tense bout of gunplay which may prompt you to do Dirty Harry-style math on the way to the most wonderful closing line of dialogue and a reprise of the wholly appropriate Four Tops classic.
For a debut feature, this a remarkably assured work, adding some nice comedic touches (Visser’s one-liners, a bungled wife-snatch that anticipates Fargo) to a storyline full of surprises. Quite simply, it’s a joy to see the cast discover information we are already privy to, and then pull the rug from under our feet as Visser moves one step forward and two steps back. Walsh is disgustingly fine as the sleaze-riddled detective, and ably supported by the intense Hedaya (just as scary then as in his memorable turn in Mulholland Drive, some 19 years later) and McDormand who also made her screen debut here, along with her director.
Universal’s DVD presents Blood Simple in its original 1.85:1 ratio, with a nice clean transfer doing full justice to Barry Sonnenfeld’s photography. The presence of an audio commentary track should have served to heighten our knowledge and appreciation of this film but Kenneth Loring (of Forever Young films, apparently) had other ideas. As a send-up on commentaries, Loring is perhaps funny for around five minutes but quickly becomes tedious and remains so (“You may be getting a little bit tired of this lighter by now”). I’m sure folks who spent their hard-earned on this disc would have loved to hear the Coens talk about script development, problems encountered getting their film from story to shooting and casting choices. A pompous viewpoint? Maybe, but surely this film deserves better?